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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 17

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-11


“Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; and they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah in Ephes-dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had greaves of bronze upon his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. And the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed five hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”

“Some twenty-seven years had passed since the defeat of the Philistines at Michmash”;(F1) and now that they had recovered their strength, they sought an opportunity to wipe out the disgrace of that disastrous rout and regain their ascendancy over Israel.

This paragraph relates chiefly the appearance of Goliath of Gath, giving a description of him, his arrogant challenge and the dismay and fear that fell upon all Israel as a result. The scene of this confrontation was, “The valley of Elah, one of the major passes from the Philistine plain up to the highlands of Judah.”(F2)

The description of the giant’s armor stresses the weight of it. Scholarly estimates of what the weight was in our own terminology vary considerably; but John Willis gives what must be considered as an approximation of the actual weight.(F3) The coat of mail alone weighed 125 pounds; and the shaft of his spear weighed 17 pounds. This takes no account of the weight of the bronze helmet, the bronze javelin, and the greaves (shin-guards) of brass. In all, his armour probably weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds!

His height, allowing about 18 inches for a cubit, would have been over nine feet. The cubit was a common measurement, usually figured as the distance between a man’s elbow and the tip of his extended middle finger; the span was a handbreadth, measured in two different ways, one across the palm, and the other between the tips of the thumb and little finger with the hand spread out.

“He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel” This insulting procedure went on for forty days; and it is certain that the taunts and insults hurled at Israel varied from day to day. Young found an interesting variation of these in the Jewish Targum. “Goliath boasted that he was the one who killed Hophni and Phinehas and carried the ark away to the house of Dagon, and also that he had killed many Israelites.”(F4) That these boastful insults were most certainly falsehoods was no problem whatever for a Philistine.

There is a shrill chorus of allegations from unbelieving critics who find nothing in these chapters except, “unhistorical material,” “interpolations,” “variable accounts” and “conflicting sources,” but this writer rejects that kind of commentary as absolutely worthless. All of the alleged difficulties here are described by Keil as “trivial.”(F5) John Willis also has shown in his remarkable analysis that there is nothing whatever in these chapters that is not capable of being harmonized with all that is written.

One of the so-called problems regards the fact that in 2 Samuel 21:19, the Bible states that “Elhanan killed Goliath.” There were whole generations of giants in those days, and the fact of two (or half a dozen) of them being named “Goliath” is no more unlikely than the fact that one may find two or three “Smith’s” on the obituary page in a big city daily newspaper. “That Goliath killed by Elhanan was Lahmi, the brother of the Goliath of Gath (1 Chronicles 20:4-8); four different giants are mentioned as being born to the giant of Gath (Deuteronomy 2:10-11; Deuteronomy 2:20-21, and Deuteronomy 3:11-13).”(F6)

The importance of this explanation is seen in the fact that the false identification of the two “Goliath’s” as the same person is, “One of the main arguments”(F7) relied upon by critics who reject the passage as `unhistorical.’

“All Israel… were dismayed and greatly afraid” “Here the Israelites were guilty of the same sin that has plagued God’s people through the centuries… They did not really trust in God’s power. David’s faith stands out in bold contrast to that cowardice”(F8)

“1 Samuel 17:12-31 are omitted in the Vatican copy of the LXX,”(F9) but the reason for this omission was solely due to the failure of translators to appreciate the proleptic nature of the preceding chapter. As Willis pointed out, “The events recorded here took place before David entered Saul’s service as an armor-bearer, but after he had been brought to Saul’s court to play the lyre, as indicated in 1 Samuel 17:15.”(F10)

Verses 12-23


“Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul, the man was already old and advanced in years. The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle; and the names of the three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the first-born, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul, But David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening. And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp for your brothers; also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See how your brothers fare, and bring some token from them.” Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. And David rose early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took the provisions, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the encampment as the host was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. And Israel and the Philistines drew up for the battle, army against army. And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.”

“David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem” The correct translation of this was given by Keil, “David was the son of THAT Ephratite,”(F11) thus referring to Jesse who was introduced in the preceding chapter. This shows the continuity of the narrative and frustrates the false charges of “diverse sources.”

“David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep” This verse solves much of the difficulty that some have found in understanding this narrative. The time element is not stated here; but the strong probability is that years passed between that time when David was used for playing the lyre for Saul, and this event, much later, when David fought Goliath. These were crucial years in David’s life, during which he passed from adolescence to vigorous and full-grown manhood. If, in the meanwhile, David had grown a full beard, that would be reason enough why neither Saul nor Abner recognized him when he went out to fight Goliath.

“Ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand” “The Hebrew word for `thousand’ here is [~’eleph], which may also refer to some division of the army.”(F12) In this fact may lie the solution to the problem of many of the numbers given in O.T. accounts which appear in the eyes of some scholars to be `exaggerated,’ or `unrealistic.’

Verses 24-27


“All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were much afraid. And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man which has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel; and the man who kills him the king will enrich with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and will make his father’s house free in Israel.” And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach of Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God”? And the people answered him in the same way, `So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”’

David was obviously impressed with the great rewards promised to the slayer of Goliath, as indicated by his asking both the soldiers, and then a little later, “the people.” David’s older brothers had observed this interest on David’s part and proceeded to rebuke and belittle him.

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God”? “Here David injected the first theological note in the whole narrative.”(F13) How strange it is, that up to this point, the knowledge on Israel’s part of the loving protection of God seems to have been forgotten altogether. After forty days of those continued insults from Goliath, this seems even more incredible. Evidently there burned in the heart of David a most unusual and confident faith in God; and that certainly must have been the secret of God’s special blessing in that terrible encounter with Goliath.

Verses 28-30


“Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down, and with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down to see the battle.” And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word”? And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way; and the people answered him again as before.”

“Eliab’s anger was kindled” The reason for Eliab’s anger is not readily discernible. Some have ascribed it to “jealousy.”(F14) His mention of the sheep sounds unreasonable, because the bringing of supplies from their father made it clear that David had Jesse’s permission to make the journey. Perhaps Willis has the best explanation: “He was angry with David for associating with the soldiers, indirectly chastising them for not accepting Goliath’s challenge, and implying that he (David) was able to defeat the giant.”(F15) That David had indeed indicated that he was able to fight the giant is clear from 1 Samuel 17:31. “The very things with which Eliab charged his brother, presumption and wickedness of heart, were very apparent in Eliab’s scornful reproof.”(F16)

Before leaving this, it should not be overlooked that as the great O.T. type of the Son of God, David’s brethren rejected him, just as Jesus’ brethren later rejected him.

Verses 31-40


“When the words which David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father, and when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and smote him and delivered it out of his mouth; and if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and killed him. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.” Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I am not used to them.” And David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.”

“You are but a youth… this man a man of war from his youth” The providence of God was surely operative in the news of David’s willingness to fight Goliath reaching the king. The soldiers began talking about what David said; the news spread far and wide; some of them might possibly have been intrigued with the possibility of seeing `that young smart-aleck from the country’ humiliated by his cowardice when confronted with the prospect of actual combat. However it happened, the news reached Saul, and Israel’s champion in the person of the youthful David stood before him.

Notice that in Saul’s reluctance to approve David as his champion, he did not mention David’s physical stature, his strength or his height, but only his age. The notion that David was a “mere lad” or an “immature stripling” at this time is contradicted by the fact of his being able to put on the king’s armor. Saul was head and shoulders above all the people; and this passage states that David also was a man of immense physical power and every whit as tall as the king himself. It is amazing to this writer how few commentators even notice this fact. “The fact that David tried on the armor of Saul indicates that he approximated the height of Saul.”(F17)

If David had worn the armor of Saul, the king could have claimed a vital share of the glory of the victory; but the essential common sense of David frustrated that maneuver on Saul’s part.

Note that the armor of the king included a sword; but David elected to fight without sword, and, as we shall see, below, this was probably an essential element in his triumph.

“He took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook” All of the Bethlehemites were skillful in the use of the sling; and, “In the exercise of David’s calling as a shepherd, he may have become as skillful in the use of it as those fellow-Benjamites of his, who could sling at a hair’s breadth and not miss (Judges 2:16).”(F18)

Regarding those five smooth stones which David put in his shepherd’s bag, it is rather amazing that one writer spoke of those stones as the size of a man’s fist. Such an idea could have come only from that remarkable statue of David which stands in front of the Uffizi Gallery in Italy and exhibits a rock the size of a man’s fist in David’s sling! That was only the artist’s way of emphasizing the stone. No rock of that size could possibly have “sunk into the forehead of Goliath.”

Verses 41-47


“And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks”? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

The imprecations shouted upon each of the contestants here were the customary preliminaries to the type of mortal combat that took place.

“The Philistine came and drew near to David” This is important because it shows that the Philistine was either walking or running toward David.

Verses 48-49


“When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.”

This mortal combat lasted less than a minute. God gave David the victory in a matter of seconds. Scholars have raised many questions about this, but there is nothing at all difficult about what is said here.

How did that stone strike Goliath in the forehead while the giant had on his helmet? “The giant’s helmet had no visor, that protection not having as yet been invented.”(F19) However, even if his helmet had been equipped with a visor, Goliath would have felt no need whatever to close it. In any event, his forehead was exposed.

Willis questioned whether or not a victim thus struck would have fallen on his face, writing that, “It would appear that a blow to the forehead would cause one to fall backward.”(F20) Such a view does not take into account that the giant was moving toward David and that, with some 200 pounds of armor, the inertia of that mass would have made it absolutely impossible for him to fall in any other direction except forward on his face.

Verses 50-54


“So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him; and there was no sword in the hand of David. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Sharaim as far as Gath and Ekron. And the Israelites came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armor in his tent.”

Some scholars profess to find a difficulty with the statement in this narrative that David killed Goliath with a sling and with a stone (1 Samuel 17:50), and in the very next verse, the text states that David took the giant’s sword and, “killed the giant and cut off his head.”

This is no difficulty whatever, being merely the way the Biblical narratives are written with much redundancy and repetition. Another example is the case of Jael’s killing Sisera. After the enemy was already lying there with his head nailed to the ground with a tent-pin driven though his temples, the narrative states that, “He was in a deep sleep, and swooned and died” (Judges 4:21, ASV)! This is merely the way that ancient historians wrote.

After that smooth stone hurled from David’s sling “sank into the forehead” of Goliath, he was as dead as if he had been shot between the eyes with a deer rifle! Subsequent references to David’s “killing” Goliath are merely repetitions for the sake of emphasis.

Still another so-called problem regards the statement that David took the head of Goliath to Jerusalem. There is no problem when it is remembered that when David did this is not mentioned. Also, David, at that time, did not have a tent, and the tent where Goliath’s armor was placed was evidently the tabernacle where the ark of God was kept. It would seem that David’s recovering the sword of Goliath from that tabernacle at a later time should be accepted as sufficient proof of this (1 Samuel 21:8-9).

Verses 55-58


“When Saul saw David go down against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth”? And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I cannot tell. And the king said, Inquire whose son the stripling is.” And as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man”? And David answered, I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”

“When Saul saw David go down against the Philistine” This should read, “When Saul had seen David go down against the Philistine.” Saul would not have inquired about David until after his victory.

Several things appear in this paragraph of great interest. Saul is already jealous of the great victory David won, hence the belittling of his champion by such words as “stripling,” and “young man.” Neither of these designations was appropriate for a man who had just tried on the armor of Israel’s king Saul, who was something of a giant himself.

But why did neither Saul or Abner recognize David. Simply because it had been a long time since David and played the lyre for Saul, and the changes in David’s appearance in the meanwhile make their recognition impossible. As the splendid scholar Robert Jamieson stated it, “The growth of the beard and other changes in the now full-grown youth prevented the king from recognizing his former favorite minstrel.”(F21) Thus, in one day’s time, God set in motion the events that would eventually elevate David to the throne as Saul’s successor.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 17". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-17.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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